“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.” —Robert Hughes
I used to be a huge fan of Peter Schjeldahl’s writing. Born of the poetic and bound by a sharp New York wit and cynicism, his critiques of art, even when disagreeable, found a way of shifting your approach to the work as if viewing it from a slightly different dimension. Speaking of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, Schjeldahl said the artist, “made an all-time philosopher’s stone for transmuting the lead of lust into the gold of awe—and visa versa, in a continual flicker.” In 1998 Schjeldahl was awarded the position many writer dreams of, writing for The New Yorker. Unfortunately, the combination of tinged elitism and age have dulled his sword to the point that now, he resembles more the aging curmudgeon than the perspicacious writer he once was.
There are those who only gain power with age or at the very least hold onto their principals and their unique angle of approach. Say what you will about the critics Robert Hughes or Arthur Danto but the fire in their belly held fast right up until the end. Instead, I perceive an increasing tiredness to Schjeldahl’s writing that borders on laziness. His latest piece in The New Yorker, titled Stunted is a classic example. As he writes about a loose collection of visual political actions that range from vulgar, obvious metaphorical epithets to elegant, ambiguous aesthetic gestures, he chooses to lump all of them into a course and didactic new term called Stunt art. The term feels more like a sarcastic remark an old man makes to a Millennial than the work of a poet. In one fell, louche gesture, Schjeldahl lumps the street artist Bambi in with the Monty Cantsin movement and the Brooklyn Bridge White American Flags performance piece. It is precisely this kind of bar room opinion that is supposed to be opposed by art criticism. Flippant and dismissive mashups do nothing to contextualize the current zeitgeist in art. As an art critic, Schjeldahl has a responsibility to parse, from an informed and educated background what on the surface may appear junk into a context of cultural legacy, when appropriate. Instead, his impudent remark, “And all Stuntists are—say it—vandals, in no matter how benign descent from the sackers of Rome, in the year 455.” In one phrase he single-handedly knocks down his newly coined movement and then kicks it while laying prone, bleeding about the mouth. If one is compelled to name a new kind of artistic action isn’t one then also bound to explaining it in better terms than vandalism?
Despite Schjeldahl’s weak attempt at the end of his essay of wrapping a pink bow on a steaming pile of excrement by making a poetic analogy between Stunt art and weeds, the overall bouquet remains, none the less, fetid. The work of the german artists Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf, focuses on the perilousness of human identity in the midst of globalism. The White American Flags piece, surreptitiously and brilliantly executed on the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge is so obviously a commentary on not just American hegemony, but on its role in globalisms oppressive form of capitalism. The American flags are not so much white, as bleached. Their potency diminished by the greed that holds so fast as the real currency of American culture, rather than the emancipation of fifty states joined in democratic union as united republic. The fact the Schjeldahl sees this as merely a ‘stunt’ is to say he has let go of his desire for aesthetic penetration in favor of the opium den sofa of American intellectual complacency. Even more unforgivable is his need to juxtapose the serious work of two German artists against the trivial acts of a Ukrainian roofer who painted over the Soviet star atop a Stalinist Seven Sister high-rise in Moscow. Although, their superficial connection is political, that is their only linkage. The carefully planned and constructed conceptual performance of White American Flags is nothing like the jingoistic expression created by the Ukrainian roofer Mustang Wanted. The latter is a purely political statement focused on a moment in history and born out of venial nationalism, rather than aesthetic commentary. How Schjeldahl could equate these two things eludes me. Perhaps, Mr. Schjeldahl should label himself a Stunt artist after his impenetrably insensitive suggestion that Detroit is better off without its art museum. These days Schjeldahl seems content with confusing a populist stance with an ignorant one and by wit, should therefore make better use of his talents by heading over to USA Today.